Abstract: Panel on Digital Government

Tracy Westen, President, Center for Governmental Studies and The Democracy Network; Adj. Prof. of Law, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Background: The Center for Governmental Studies has created a new working system of interactive digital political communication called The Democracy Network. The Center first tested The Democracy Network in two "laboratory settings" during the 1996 Presidential and selected local elections, using two different sets of candidate-supplied materials:

  1. Digitized, on-demand video position statements supplied by ten Presidential and several state legislative candidates on up to ten issues, carried over Time Warner's Full Service Network's digital News Channel in Orlando, Florida; and
  2. Textual position statements (of up to 1,000 words each) supplied by dozens of Presidential, state and local candidates on over 100 issues, carried over the Internet during the Santa Monica, California election.

The Center then refined and further tested The Democracy Network's Internet features in two local elections: Los Angeles (Spring 1997) and Seattle (Fall 1997). Based on these further tests, the Center will make The Democracy Network available for use in up to six states during the 1998 Congressional and State Elections and then make it more widely available to all states for the Presidential, national and state elections of 2000.

Features: The Democracy Network is an attempt to determine whether innovative uses of interactive digital communications technologies can stimulate candidates to provide voters with a broader range of electoral information. It provides participating candidates with IDs and Passwords, allowing them to log onto The Democracy Network from remote locations, select any substantive issue of their choosing, prepare a textual (and in some instances video) statement of up to 1,000 words, remotely insert that statement into an "Issue Grid" for viewing by the public and then rebut their opponents' statements. Opponents' positions are labeled "No Comment" until filled. The "Issues Grid" thus allows voters to watch candidates engage in a "digital debate" as their positions on specific issues evolve over time.

The Democracy Network also allows voters to watch debates between ballot measure committees, review candidate biographies, volunteer for or make campaign contributions to candidates, communicate with candidates and other voters about specific issues, review the coverage of participating media and utilize a number of other features. The Democracy Network is supported by national foundations, contains no advertising and is free to users and all candidates on the ballot.

Preliminary Results: Preliminary testing indicates The Democracy Network has the capacity to improve the quality of voter information, as well as reconfigure the parameters of electoral debates, in a number of important ways.

  1. Candidates will participate if The Democracy Network is available and explained to themówith participation rates as high as 91% in some instances.
  2. Candidates are more likely to use the system to address specific issues than espouse generalities.
  3. Candidates are more likely to make factual and substantive comments in the system than generalized emotional appeals.
  4. Candidates and voters will use the system to "push" opposing candidates to address issues they might otherwise avoid.
  5. Candidates will participate more actively when the are able to do so remotely through the system's Remote Updating System (RUS).
  6. Candidates believe the system will ultimately reduce their campaign costs.
  7. Voters will significantly use the system if it is publicized and known to them.
  8. Voters principally use the system to review candidates' substantive positions on issues.
  9. Voters will use the system to volunteer for candidate campaigns.

Further Potential Impacts: Initial research on The Democracy Network also suggests the system has the capacity to improve the electoral process in a number of additional ways:

  1. By reducing the financial disparities in candidates' spending.
  2. By increasing voter participation.
  3. By exposing voters to contrasting viewpoints in a convenient format.
  4. By allowing voters to control the time of their exposure to the candidates' messages.
  5. By allowing both horizontal comparisons of competing candidates and vertical comparisons of the same candidate.
  6. By giving voters the choice of information in a multimedia format.
  7. By letting voters review the statements and questions of other voters.
  8. By letting voters review their own decisions over time.
  9. By giving minority candidates greater visibility.